The people of Homer, Louisiana, were told they were in for a boon. A multinational business consortium announced plans to build a uranium enrichment plant near the town, and that would mean lots of good-paying jobs. A U.S. senator spoke glowingly of the project; the regional planning commission endorsed it. The only people with any misgivings were the poor African Americans who would live next to the facility. They knew such a health risk would never be allowed near a middle-class suburb, and they didn’t want it in their back yard either.
It doesn’t usually matter what a poor community thinks. The polluting factory or toxic waste dump gets built, and that’s the end of the story. But not this time. David took on Goliath, and Kristin Shrader-Frechette provided the slingshot and stone.
“My contribution was to show how the science in the environmental impact statement was faulty. The cost-benefit analysis was all wrong,” says Notre Dame’s O’Neill Family Professor of Philosophy. As a result, Louisiana Energy Services lost its bid for an operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The case is regarded as the first major victory against environmental racism in the United States.
Sticking up for the poor and the powerless generally isn’t included in a philosophy professor’s job description, but Shrader-Frechette, a pioneering leader in the field of environmental ethics, considers it essential to her mission. “People often disassociate their work life and religious life, and that’s a problem. I see my job as uniting the two. To get students to see how real world decisions affect religious/ethical life.”
The editor of the Oxford University Press series “Environmental Ethics and Science Policy” and former president of the Society for Philosophy and Technology insists she is not driven by any particular ideology. She has been critical of environmentalists as well as corporate America. Recently she testified on behalf of an aluminum company charged by the Environmental Protection Agency with the entire cost of cleaning up a toxic landfill. Others had deposited hazardous waste; the company’s only apparent sin was that it had the “deep pockets” to pay for the expensive cleanup.
If she is driven by anything it’s the hope that her zeal for social justice will be contagious. To foster involvement, Shrader-Frechette gives students in all her courses the option of working on a real-world public policy issue in place of a required theoretical paper. Recent cases have included the Homer project, an analysis of an environmental impact statement for increased operations of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and an analysis of the Dutch government’s plan for storage and disposal of radioactive waste.
“It’s a way to baptize students into public citizenship now and in the future. It’s a way for them to bring ethics into the way they live and see their faith in action. You want them to open their eyes,” she says. “That’s what you want to happen.”